The problems of e-waste

Posted on Posted in Product Analysis

Last week I choose a design strategy and made a plan for the rest of the project. But it has been important for me to ensure that I don’t come up with a good solution to the wrong problem. The last days I have therefore been taken a step back and looked more into what the exact sustainability problems are with the current design of electronic products, and wireless speakers in particular. This search included taking a newly bought product apart, finding a container full of old e-waste, talking to lots of users and looking deep into the complicated streams of electronic waste.

To evaluate the environmental impact of a product, the whole life-cycle has to be considered and a holistic view is necessary to take many different impacts into account. How much energy is used during manufacturing? How is it transported? How much energy does it use? What substances can be harmful to the environment? And last but not least, how is it disposed at the end-of-life. The idea behind the Products That Last approach is to extend the product use and the material use. For now I will not conduct a full life-cycle assessment. I will instead focus on the end of life and I will do that by analyzing three levels:

1. Component level (What is the impact of the materials and components?)
2. Product level (Why do people dispose the product?)
3. Systems level (How are wireless speakers disposed?)

COMPONENT LEVEL
As previously mentioned wireless speakers are quite simple products. To understand how the speakers are build up, I have looked at some of the many teardown videos, you can find on Youtube and sites like iFixit.com, where curious nerds carefully take apart their new gadgets in order to share the inside with the rest of the world (or at least with the people who find such videos entertaining). For me it was not enough to look at videos so I bought a cheap speaker and took it apart:

Teardown collage

There are four main parts of wireless speakers and they have different implications for the environment; The speaker unit(s), the casing, the battery and the integrated printed circuit board (PCB). What make these speakers different from former (passive) speakers is the addition of the battery and the circuit board.

The problems with the printed circuit board is the use of toxic brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and the lead used for soldering and beryllium used in copper alloy connectors. Besides that a circuit board contains precious rare earth metals that only to a limited degree get recollected.

The casing brominated flame retardants (BFRs) can be used and the casing can be made of different materials that are not easy to take apart. Like in many other small electronics devices li-ion batteries are used in wireless speakers. Li-Ion batteries are not as bad as other kind of batteries and are classified as non-hazardous waste, but they contain valuable iron, copper, nickel and cobalt and as mining currently remains cheaper than recycling, most batteries end up being incinerated.

PRODUCT LEVEL
Why do people dispose their electronic products and transform smart gadgets into waste? This question have been the hardest for me to answer so far. The reasons are many and complex and it is very hard to find any hard numbers to answer the question specifically for wireless speakers. The product category is new, which means that most products are still in use, and it also means that it is impossible to identify the product in the statistics, which I will come back to later.

If we look at small consumer electronics in general the Products That Last book come up with many insightful considerations with regards to the question. Both function and form are at stake. Here are a couple of different scenarios:

1. It doesn’t work.
Electronic repair websites such as iFixit.com has trouble shooting pages, where errors are listed, but it is difficult to get an overview of which errors are the most common. I iFixit also has a so called “repairability score” for the products that they tear apart and for most of the speakers available the score is quite good, which means that if something breaks it is possible to repair. Yet, it is important to remember that even though it is technically possible, relatively few people have the courage or skills to do it. And it is simple not feasible if the speaker only cost €50 (or €10 as was the case with the speaker above). The lithium-ion battery in the speaker has a limited lifespan (typical 500-1000 cycles) and after some years the performance of the product will therefore decrease and at one point not be able to function in way that satisfy the user.

2. It’s outdated
Secondly perfectly well functioning products can be disposed simple because there is something new and better. As processing power grows exponentially and prices continues to drop, many electronic products are almost obsolete before they even hit the shelves.  It could argued that not all technologies need to be faster and that more mature technologies, such as speakers, therefore are more resistant to technological development. This is true, as the core technology might not change, but increased computing power, enables quality improvement through e.g. noise canceling software. And as technology evolves prices also go down, which can explain why it is possible to now buy a bluetooth speaker for €10 as the one shown above.

3. It doesn’t solve a need
Discounts and offers often encourage us to buy things that we don’t need. After some time in the drawer along with unwanted presents we simple forget that we have it.

4. The experience is bad
It can also be that there is an actual need, but that the user experience is just not satisfactory. This is related to the price. Below can be seen a difference between a €10 and a €15 speaker. It is easy to hear the difference in quality.

SYSTEM LEVEL

So how a speakers being disposed? I visited the electronic waste collection point on TU Delft’s campus, to get an idea of what kinds of products get disposed and what state they are in. The e-waste from a university campus is different from waste from households, and therefore the e-waste that I saw mostly consisted of old computers and monitors. But it was still interesting to get a first hand impression and to talk to the e-waste caretaker.
e-waste tu delft_edited_edited

It is difficult to say exactly where wireless speakers end their lifes, because the product category is new. This both means that few wireless speakers have been disposed and that the product category does not exist in the available data. According to the european WEEE directive wireless speakers would fall in the category of Small electronics equipment, which is a rather broad category. Another way to classify electronics products is with so called UNU-keys, with 54 different groups, where each category share average weights, material composition and end of life characteristics (UN University, 2015). But also here it is difficult to find wireless speakers. Are they classified together with normal speakers? Or in the group “music instruments, radio and hifi”? Or is it maybe small consumer electronics? There is simple no category that cover speaker devices with internal batteries. A report from the UN University (2015) reveals that in the Netherlands only 32% of e-waste is collected and recycled in official recycling centers. The report also reveals that the majority of small electronic devices end up in the waste bin instead of the recycling center. In the Netherlands each person produce on average 23.7 kilos of e waste. Small Electronic Equipment accounts for 6.4 kilos and in this category 1.6 kilo ends up in the waste bin each year. So it is reasonable to assume that also a lot of the speakers sold now will end up in the bin.

e-waste graphs

 

All in all it can be concluded that the current model here in the Netherlands are far from circular. And for the products that are recycled, the materials are really being downgraded. So there is a true need for more circular product designs to change this.

Sources: United Nations University (2015): E-waste statistics, guidelines on classification, reporting and indicators, Institute for the advanced study of sustainability. 

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